Morning weddings are more vibrant than those held in the afternoon. In the morning, flowers radiate with more intensity, people smile wider, and the sun is more forgiving. In Jacksonville, Florida, where summer temperatures can reach into the 90s before noon, getting married at any other time of day would be sheer insanity.
The Club Continental is one of Jacksonville’s most popular wedding venues. Built in 1922 by the heir of the founder of the Palmolive Soap Company, the Mediterranean-style mansion overlooks the expansive St. John’s River. Set among magnificent 200-year oak trees, draped with Spanish moss, Club Continental was the perfect setting for the nuptials of David, my nephew, and Christy, his beautiful bride.
What makes the unexpected terrifying is how it intrudes itself, often violently, on the comfort of the moment. I had just settled down to a full plate of prime rib and tomato salad, when I heard my father urgently say, “Something’s wrong with Toby!” My eyes darted over to my mother who was gasping for air, desperately waving her hands as if begging for help. My mother was choking to death.
I can’t tell you much of what happened next. I can only offer you confused snapshots, flickering words and images that the grace of my memory will only parcel out in bearable morsels. I know I am behind my mother now. I’m thrusting upward against her diaphragm, the way I had learned decades ago when I was a lifeguard. I feel her ribs against my forearms, and think, “That’s too hard, her bones are old.” There is commotion in the room; utensils are clanking to the floor. People are out of their chairs, pensive. I hear screaming voices, but only the frightening words are registering with me; “Choking!”…“Heart attack!”…“Oh my God!”…“Call 911!” I know things are critical, she not getting any oxygen. I can’t tell if she’s conscious. I’m thinking, “Don’t die. For God’s sake, don’t die!”
Time has come to a near standstill, as if I could walk around each suspended frame of memory in some three-dimensional matrix. A relative is frantically dialing his cell phone. A bridesmaid is holding her open mouth. A woman, holding her toddler son in a tight embrace, turns his face away from the scene. The room is frantic. My eyes catch what would become my most vivid memory of the entire episode, the terrified and confused face of my 3-year-old daughter. The cuff-linked hand of my brother squeezes my shoulder. He urges, “Turn her to her side.” I follow the instruction. My brother gets close to her face. “She’s breathing. She’s breathing again! She’s okay everyone.”
The moments after my mother’s choking episode were full of relief and decompression. Everyone began processing what just happened, including my mother who, after spitting up, was perfectly fine though terrifically embarrassed. Later, people came up to me complimenting me for taking swift action. A few of my closest relatives, who knew I had begun writing a book on courage, commented how ironic it was that I got a firsthand experience in what I was writing about.
But here’s the thing, and this is important, saving my mother’s life WAS NOT COURAGEOUS. I am not saying that out of some false humility. I’m saying it because it is true. I know what courage is. I have had courageous experiences, and unclogging my mother’s throat wasn’t one of them. It wasn’t courage that caused me to come to my mother’s aid. It was the fact that I was sitting across from her. It was because I knew what needed to be done, and I had been trained with the skills to do it. It was because she was my mother. Given those set of factors, anyone else would have done the same thing.
Here’s how I know it wasn’t courage: I acted before I knew I was afraid. In fact, I’m not even sure I was afraid during the entire episode. I experienced it almost robotically, registering memories matter-of-factly, like “Oh, my mother’s dying. I should do something about this.” The people around me were more terrified than I was, probably because they were witnessing it as a continuous event. My brain had gone into some sort of hypnotic coping sub-state, like when your computer goes into hibernate mode to protect itself from a power surge.
Courage involves a premeditated confrontation with fear. Courage is something you contemplate, plan for and execute on. “Instant Courage” is a rarity if not a downright falsehood. When you react to something before the fear sets in, you aren’t engaging with fear, and engaging with fear is the signature mark of a courageous act. Courage and fear have a mystical relationship; situations that are devoid of fear are also devoid of courage. Courage is not fearless. In fact, it is fearful. Courage is acting on what is right despite being afraid.